Food & Wine

Food truck puts corporate leftovers to community good

Photo by Eliza Ridgeway/Town Crier
Huong Vo, pictured far right at right, the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District’s student services coordinator, works with Jonathan Vallejo, a “driver ambassador,” to direct under-resourced local families to the free-to-all food truck.

Summer can feel like a lean time for families who use school meals to fend off food insecurity, and local organizations that fight hunger try to step up summer offerings in response.

One new resource fights a dual battle against food waste and food insecurity. The A La Carte food truck launched by Silicon Valley Food Rescue started parking in front of local schools earlier this year, distributing pre-packaged leftovers as take-home meal offerings for anyone in the community who could use an assist.

The program is continuing into the summer, most locally at its spot on Bryant Street outside the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Office. Anyone in need of food can seek it out 2:30-3:45 p.m. Thursdays.

The idea of a “food rescue system” in Silicon Valley connects surplus food to the hungry. Stanford University was an early participant in packing up leftover prepared food and distributing it to food-safety-trained drivers, who move a refrigerated truck to different neighborhoods experiencing need. The family-sized catering trays represent the same food being served up at conferences and corporate lunchrooms, redirected when abundance might lead to waste.

Ready to serve

In Mountain View, a mix of students, their families, staff and other local residents have made their way to the A La Carte truck. Jonathan Vallejo, the “driver ambassador” working the truck on a recent Thursday, was handing out the final containers of barley, tofu and French toast left at the end of a busy afternoon. The ready-to-heat food benefits from heating but doesn’t need much else – a visitor who tried the repast found a single tray of the seasoned tofu paired with the rice-like barley as a whole-grain, nearly complete dinner that could easily serve six.

“I hear from a lot of families that it helps them out for four to six days,” Vallejo said. “I also get families that are very big, where a couple of trays help for that day.”

Photo Courtesy A La Carte 
Refrigeration, careful packaging and a trained driver ambassador turn corporate leftovers into food-safe donations.

The truck doesn’t require registration or gather personal information, the only food source in the area to be completely barrier-free, as far as Huong Vo knows. She’s the district’s student services coordinator, and helps high school students and their families connect to resources like the truck. She also pulls aside meals that do particularly well straight from the refrigerated truck as an instant meal.

“Not all families or students have access to refrigeration or a means of heating things up,” she noted.

As the organization readies a second truck to join the fleet next month, it is expanding its current reach, which includes schools in Mountain View, Cupertino, Sunnyvale and beyond as well as neighborhood hot spots like senior centers. Access to the truck spreads via word of mouth and school emails and newsletters.

“I see all ages of faces, from young kids to adults,” Vallejo said. “They try out the food, and most of the time I see their faces again.”

John Sobrato and his nonprofit Sobrato Philanthropies underwrote the first truck for the program, which has also received local waste reduction and recycling grant funding. Silicon Valley Food Rescue operates as a project of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a local nonprofit agency better known for its business-focused white papers and economic analysis. A recent California State Senate bill mandates increasing diversion of food waste on a corporate level, and the project helps local food producers come into compliance while doing good at the same time.

Photo courtesy A La Carte 
The A La Carte food truck, above, offers free meals to anyone in the community who could use an assist.

Blazing new ground

Robin Franz Martin, executive director of Silicon Valley Food Rescue and A La Carte, said the food truck was “blazing new ground” for Joint Venture but aligned perfectly with their pre-existing network of relationships with businesses and nonprofit groups. All of the connections were in place – the only missing piece was infrastructure to move food safely from point A to point B. Enter the food truck.

Nonprofit organizations often identify need for nutrition resources, but they lack the space, refrigeration and transportation to get the food to the people who can eat it.

“The idea was, how do we take the pressure off the nonprofit end and take the food directly to folks who need it?” Martin said.

Her organization can take leadership over the food safety and liability involved in the process, another point of pain for organizations with food they want to share but no responsible way to distribute it. Institutions package the food, and a trained driver arrives with a refrigerated truck to take possession.

In an era when many universities and companies offer abundant and varied catered food, the amazing choices come at a cost to efficiency, Martin noted. Corporate catering has advanced in how it prepares and serves portions to minimize surplus food. But when the goal is to offer the same experience and options to the first in line at the buffet and the last to pass through, excess will remain inherent to the system.

Martin said Joint Venture began by identifying communities with high food insecurity and sending the truck to schools where a range of caregivers were likely to pass through doing student pickup. Because anyone is welcome, no questions asked, the trucks are able to serve people who have been slipping through the cracks of other programs.

“I like that we don’t have to draw lines in the sand with who is able to get our food. Also, it helps with undocumented folks – they’ve been dropping in numbers with CalFresh, where you have to give a lot of information about yourself, like your address,” Martin noted.

The nearest local site to access the food truck is 2:30-3:45 p.m. Thursdays at 1299 Bryant Ave. in Mountain View. Martin suggests following Silicon Valley Food Rescue on social media to find a revised schedule, anticipated next month when a second truck expands its service locations.

For more information on volunteering, food donation and other ways to participate, visit silicon-valley-food-rescue.

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